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Leda and the Swan

Sound Effects

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro,  Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac,  upbeat,  blue, staccato,  dirge, ode,   Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

The startling dramatic beginning plunges us immediately into the action and we are caught up vicariously in the intensity and urgency of the passion.  We feel part of the terror of the attack but are also ambivalently detached by the anonymity created by the pronouns “her” and “he” and “she” and “his” and the awe-struck wonder of “The feathered glory”.  Simultaneously we are re-engaged by all the rhetorical questions, tormenting us with tension. 

Rather than censuring the savagery of the attack by the Swan, we seem to be inspired by its mystique and strange irresistible power. Variously described by conflicting adjectives such as dark websbut later as “feathered glory” , then “strange heart”  followed by “brute blood” and finally “indifferent beak”,  we still retain an awe for the majestic power of a  deity.

II. Subject Matter – Context and Background

This poem is about a recurring phenomenon of incarnation – immaculate conception by the transformation of a god into an earthly embodiment to procreate life.  In Greek mythology it was the prerogative of the main god to become carnal for procreation; Zeus adopted the form of a bull to mate with Europa, a shower of golden rain with Danai, and adopted the form of a swan to impregnate Leda with Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon and later the twins Castor and Pollux.  

From the Hindu religion we have Avatar – a deity on earth – a Christ figure – the descent of the divine into the mortal.

In Christian tradition, the virgin Mary through immaculate conception by the Holy spirit (a dove) gave birth to Jesus – God incarnate.

Michelangelo's painting is a possible source of inspiration:


IlI. Themes, concerns, issues - values

Violence was instrumental in the origin of the great classical and aristocratic era of Greece. According to myth, and developed in “Leda and the Swan” The Greek age was ushered in by the rape of Leda by Zeus, disguised in the form of a swan, through which she bore Clytemnestra (who killed Agamemnon) and Helen (the cause of the Trojan War). “Leda and the Swan” is permeated with a mood of violence arid yet it tells of the most classical story of history. 

This raises the question of a distinction between rape and ravish.  What is the difference?

Christianity is also responsible for much of the violence in the world. In “Songs from a Play” Yeats contrasts the reaction to the violent death of Dionysus to that of Christ’s death.

I saw a staring virgin stand

Where holy Dionysus died,

And tear the heart out of his side,

And lay the heart ,upon her hand

And bear that beating heart away;

And then did all the Muses sing

Of Magnus Annus at the spring,

As though God’s death were but a play.

The fact that over 200 babies were killed in Bethlehem; an attempt to eliminate the baby Jesus, and the brutality of his eventual crucifixion gave rise to a violent age.

Here is a take by Guy Rundle:
Congratulations, you’re going to Bethlehem! 

"My wife Mary is the sole human being born without sin, and is with child which, following her impregnation by the creator of the Universe, will be born as both the God himself and his Son who will cause himself to be put to death by the people he created in order to expiate the sins he gave them, causing her to ascend to transitional Godhead status in two world religions. Me, I’m a carpenter. Shelving, mostly. Bit of shop fitting."

The Greeks celebrated the death of their god with a Drama Festival each year at Athens. Some of the greatest art of the classical world originated from these festivals. In contrast Christ’s death brought anguish and breakdown.

The Roman Empire stood appalled:

It dropped the reins of peace and war

When that fierce virgin and her star

Out of the fabulous darkness called.

The Babylonian starlight brought

A fabulous, formless darkness in;

Odour of blood when Christ was slain

Made all Platonic tolerance vain

And vain all Doric discipline.

The poem is about the interactions between power and powerlessness on a number of levels. The first is the obvious sexual level, what does the helpless woman have to gain from the embrace of the Alpha Male?  And, over all, the strangeness of interactions between the possessors of power and the powerless, that can result in such disastrous consequences.

Like all perpetrators of rape, (ravish?) Zeus loses interest in his victim as soon as he reaches his climax and lets her drop “indifferent”.  While Yeats does not judge, he allows us to see this as an exploitive, self-serving or self-gratifying act (ravish or rape?) with little mutual engagement.  Yet there is no evidence of any trauma to Leda.

The rhetorical question “Did she put on his knowledge and power”   may come from the bible which often refers to intimate relations as “and he knew her”. 


Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climactic.     Images: (visual, auditory, o1factory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech:  similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

Yeats first wrote his ideas in prose and then translated them into verse, often reciting the lines orally to get the sound right.  He would revise his poems many times over years of composition to get the best sound effects.

This poem was carefully crafted over a five year period.  We are fortunate to have three versions of it and can see the tightening of the verse over this time. 

Leda and the Swan

(an early version 18 September 1923)

Now can the swooping godhead have his will

Yet hovers, though her helpless thighs are pressed

By the webbed toes; and that all powerful bill

Has suddenly bowed her face upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

All the stretched body’s laid in that white rush

And feels the strange heart beating where it lies.

A shudder in the loins engenders there

 The broken wall, the burning roof and Tower

And Agamemnon dead....

Being so caught up

Did nothing pass before her in the air?

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

While the sestet remains the same through all three versions, there are major changes to the first eight lines of this sonnet.  This first version lacks the power and dramatic punch of the final one mainly because of its lack of immediacy and its passive voice. 

(a later version, printed in a magazine, August 1924)

A rush, a sudden wheel, and hovering still

The bird descends, and her frail thighs are pressed

By the webbed toes, and that all-powerful bill

Has laid her helpless face upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs!

All the stretched body’s laid on the white rush

And feels the strange heart beating where it lies;

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

 Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

The second draft is an improvement on the first but still lacks the powerful direct action, descriptive adjectives and the strength of the active verbs of the final version.

Leda and the Swan

(the final version, first published in 1928.)

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead,

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Poetic Devices.

Assonance - "great wings", "his bill", "knowledge... power"

Alliteration - "broken... burning", "brute blood"

Onomatopoeia - "beating", "staggering", "caressed", "shudder"


Swans are classic images of beauty.  Yeats uses them throughout his poetry (The Wild Swans of Coole) to demonstrate the beauty and endless cycles of nature.  The image of the swan is dealt with in great detail - "wings", "web[bed feet]", "bill", "breast", "feathered glory", "strange heart", "the loins", "brute blood", "indifferent beak". The image is meant to be of great power and beauty, and of emotions strange and wonderful - hence the "strange heart".

Leda is weaker - a "staggering girl". She is "helpless", "terrified vague", "so caught up", "so mastered". The two images - power and submission - embrace, the swan on top. The orgasm "engenders there" the fall of Troy, the death of a king.

Then Yeats explicitly names the central images of the poem - "power" and "knowledge". In the penetration and subversion of the powerless, is something gained, does their place in history become cemented.

Yeats cleverly employs the double meaning of words and symbols.  "The broken wall, the burning roof and tower" refer literally to the razing of Troy, symbolically they may suggest;  the breaking of the hymen, the pain of penetration by the phallus (tower).


Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,   Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative,   emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.   Gender biases.  Register:  formal, stiff, dignified  or Colloquial;  relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly  or Slang;  colourful, intimate,  Rhetorical devices;  Questions,  exclamations,  cumulation,  crescendo,  inversion,  bathos,  repetition,  3 cornered phrases. 


Leda and Zeus are not named in the poem (excepting the title of course), and elements of the swan are personified - "the great wings", "The feathered glory", "the brute blood of the air" are all given an identity of their own.  

Diction.  It is the punchy monosyllabic active verbs (sudden blow,  beating, staggering, nape caught,) that create an immediacy and dramatic tension of the opening. Written in the third person, the poet is "present" behind the three rhetorical questions in the poem,  two in the second stanza and one in the final stanza, which are unanswered but leave us undisturbed.  We are rather awe-struck, under the mystique of the Zeus and Leda legend, which was one of Yeats' cataclysmic two thousand year events. Although words such as "terrified" describe Leda, they are not in the tone of the poem or the speaker. The use of the half-rhetorical questions, and the adjectives which precede them - "strange", "indifferent" are indicative of the mystic nature of the poem.  The “dark webs” are contrasted with the euphemistic “feathered glory”.  The s*xual nuances of “shudder in the loins engenders”  predict the devastation of the Trojan War.


This is a signature poem of one of the best poets of the 20th century.  It demonstrates Yeats global and historical vision of the rise and decline of civilisations.

In the light of recent exposures of powerful men accused of sexual predation, this is a spoof on how Zeus would have to excuse himself in today's world:

Zeus: The Apology

Prudence Crowther JANUARY 18, 2018 ISSUE

The cloud-gatherer Zeus issued this message today through his public relations team of rustling oak trees:

Heinrich Lossow

I came of agelessness just after heaven and earth were formed, when there weren’t many rules yet about behavior, since I’d hardly made any. If someone broke an oath, I threw a thunderbolt—that was one of the few. Nor was there any “workplace culture” on Olympus to speak of. That’s no excuse, I know now. I will leave it for others to judge whether the fact that my father cut off my grandfather’s genitals and flung them into the ocean and ate all my siblings makes any difference. One way or another, clearly I have needed to channel some kind of insecurity, and over the last few weeks I’ve asked Athena to put together a phalanx of gods and mortals to help me wrestle with those demons that come with the territory of being able to mess with everything at will. It doesn’t happen overnight.

But let me address the stories told to the media by four brave women named Leda, Io, Europa, and Danaë, who felt able to name themselves, if not those accusations leveled by Leto, Demeter, Thetis, Mnemosyne, and the hundreds of others who preferred to remain anonymous—smart women and good lays all, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect. As for Ganymede, he will confirm that I have already made him whole for his “cup-bearing.” We remain friendly.

These stories are true. At the time, I told myself that because I always asked first before blinding a woman with the sight of my full splendor as Lord of the Sky, it was OK. Yesterday I learned otherwise. We will all be sitting down soon with the Furies to see what kinds of remedies are out there.

Leda: I shudder to think that you interpreted the caress of your thighs by my dark swan webs as anything other than a frank infatuation with your intellect. I totally accept that you did not “lead me on” (although even your mother said, “Are you going out like that?”). And if you did somehow understand the consequences of what I thought were shared feelings at the moment I came—the Trojan War, etc.—that didn’t necessarily compensate for your terror and my falling asleep so fast afterward. I get it. “Indifferent beak,” c’est moi.

Io—or “10,” as I used to call you in all genuine affection—I’m mortified to think I wrapped us in a dark cloud in broad daylight without your consent, though it was a pretty standard prank back then, as was turning you into a heifer the second Hera caught wind. Of course I was lying when I told her I’d never seen you before, and naturally she knew you didn’t buy that little bell for yourself. Playing the horndog with one of her own priestesses was inexcusable. Duh. Please do not blame her, therefore, for forcing you to wander the earth forever being stung by a gadfly.

I owe a special apology to Europa, you who so innocently encouraged your young friends to mount my broad, chestnut-bright back, touching in gentle wonder my horns like the crescent moon, breathing in the flowery fragrance of my magic dander as I licked your nut-brown feet. The dolphins, Nereids, and Tritons who appeared to normalize the abduction have been called enablers, but let’s face it, only the bull was at fault there—and I am not that bull. My lawyer wanted to argue that since I’m not, I can’t be held accountable. That sounded right to me, actually, but Chiron put his hoof down. I am on a journey for sure.

And why on earth I imagined I could move on Danaë as a shower of gold coins and get away with it… Yes, they remain a good diversifier to stocks and bonds, but you deserved so much more than a relationship with change. I am really, really sorry.

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